A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

The 3 Cs of Grief

The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of  losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.

Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.  

That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential.  I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:

Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.

Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what  restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the  grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.

Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.

Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?

Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and  life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything.  In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)

Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I  just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.          

Confluence.  The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy.  Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”

I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail.  I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty  It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.

I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.

I am different now.

And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.

I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

The holidays are tough; they just are, this year in particular. Even in years without global pandemics and the strife of 2020, they serve up a bittersweet concoction of complicated family dynamics, mixed with tidbits of joy, the overwhelming presence of loss—and deeply cherished memories of celebrations past. This is my third Christmas without my son Elliot.

For me, the holidays are something to endure, to get through. But for my dear son Ian’s sake, my priority is to create new traditions for us, fresh memories for him, for me and for us. Easier said than done this year, but being together will be my greatest gift.   

There are plenty of new experiences now. Last weekend, I participated in a deeply moving ritual – the 24th Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting, sponsored by Compassionate Friends, virtual this year. The event honors and remembers children gone too soon. My dear friends Patty and Ken, along with First Unitarian Church, hosted a beautiful Zoom ceremony with profound and intimate meaning for those who struggle every day to pick up the sharp fragments of their shattered hearts.

Whether two days or 20 years, the pain never goes away. It just changes, but still inextricably intertwined with every moment and every breath. What a sacred time this was for those who understand, who know without saying a word, to honor the names and memories of our precious children, sorely missed but never, ever forgotten.

In thinking about how I would honor my extraordinary Elliot, on this day I thought of his poetry. He spoke from the depth of his soul, and I felt compelled to share his inimitable words that continue to resonate and inspire me in my writing each day. I recall with gratitude when Elliot’s University of Toronto poetry professor contacted me via this very blog. Thank you, Ricardo Sternberg, for sharing your admiration for Elliot and his exquisite words, a welcome glimpse of eternity. I read this as his candle burned:

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

This cut in my bone
is the cut in yours,
a home for bad infinity;
Cantor’s blade is teething there,
mythic sword in stump.

Time, kindling for consciousness,
julienned, burns like straw,
and pallid smoke smears memory
as sheets of stratus smear the sun.

The clock unspools a fibril
a slender invisible line
for stringing my images along
like a Chinese line of cash–

It’s hard to tell–they’re shaved so thin–
which image here is
derived from the last.

It’s hard to adequately express my gratitude for the First Unitarian community—thoughtful, caring, authentic, and present. Thank you, thank you. Sending love and light to all who suffer in this unbearable darkness. I am with you. My heart is with you.